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Earlier this month, James Bloodworth wrote a blog for the Independent comparing Islamophobia to a type of Orwellian doublespeak, “PR jargon”, designed to shut down public debate. He joins a chorus of voices on the Left who reject the term on grounds of the ‘freedom to criticise’ Islam. This particular argument is disconcerting in that Islam is regularly subjected to the sort of scrutiny rarely if ever, afforded to other faiths, and many of those who seek to counter islamophobia, myself included, have been equally committed to defending free speech. The term ‘islamophobia’ is many things, but it is not an attempt at muzzling critical inquiry.
Some on the Left have gone further still, joining voices on the Right in denouncing Islam on the grounds of its alleged anti-liberal tenets. Chief amongst these, the late Italian writer and left-wing journalist Oriana Fallaci insisted that Islam is a violent and totalitarian creed; British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis has previously stated Muslims should be deprived of their civil liberties as a form of collective punishment and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee frequently regurgitates the most odious and decontextualized translations of the Quran as if they were, well – Gospel. Paul Hockenos argues that “the left and liberals have largely capitulated, unable to address the issue of Islam and the Muslims among us in a constructive way.”
There have been many attempts at defining islamophobia and debates rage over its Orientalist or Post-9/11 emergence and the appropriate response to it (legislation vs. education). However, despite the frequently erected straw-man of stifling free speech, countering islamophobia is not about limiting discussion of the faith itself. It is about ensuring a largely socially, economically and politically disenfranchised minority is not stigmatised, stereotyped, further marginalised and consequently left open to hate crimes.
A personal bugbear is the suggestion that Islam or the Quran ‘says’ – Islam doesn’t speak – people speak in the name of Islam, filtering the texts through their experiences and drawing on interpretive traditions. Islamophobia is when influential figures like Tonybee or others define Islam in a public sphere where Muslims struggle to make themselves heard, over and above how Muslims themselves understand their faith. In other words, it is to ascribe meaning to Islam which most Muslims do not. The reification of faith by public figures with prominent platforms, assumes that, unlike other religious traditions, Islam is monolithic and can be gleaned from a brief perusal of sacred texts. It can’t. To do so is to misrepresent Islam, the faith of over 1.3 billion people in the world, and to leave its practitioners open to the accusation of complicity in a depraved hate cult.
What’s more, despite a clear ontological distinction between race and religion, it cannot be ignored that Islam is associated with racialized minorities – South Asians in the UK, Arabs in France, Turks in Germany. When critique of religion overlaps so significantly with a particular racial group within society, and is often used as short-hand for that racial group, the line between religion and race becomes obscured. The Daily Mail’s choice to use the term “muslim gang” to refer to rapists who plied young girls with alcohol and raped them, is one such example. The recent case in Rochdale further illustrated this confusion. While Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case Nazir Afzal blamed “imported cultural baggage”, commentators such as David Aaronovitch promptly interpreted that to mean Islam. Although Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, to assume Islam is the central motivating factor in the behavior of all Pakistanis, is a form of cultural racism.
The close imbrication of religion, race and culture in almost every part of the world makes disassociating them a complex affair. Take the case of Nouredine Rachedi, a young Frenchman who was returning home late one evening in Paris when two men approached him and asked him if he was Muslim. They then proceed to beat him so savagely, he was incapacited for three weeks with severe head injuries. Nouredine is clean shaven and was dressed inconspicuously. His aggressors singled him out on the basis of his ethnic profile, before determining his religious identity based on his verbal confirmation.
Islamphobia, as a term, is required to refer to precisely these cases where the focus of abuse is a projected understanding of what someone stands for based on their being identified as Muslim. This represents the shift in emphasis from classical biological racism to cultural racism, described by critical race theory. New forms of discrimination are complex and subtle, they largely avoid the crude biological markers of racial stereotyping and have been replaced with a focus on cultural differences, real or imagined, to rationalize the unequal status and treatment of different racial groups.
The assumptions is, there are some cultures that are more backward than our highly evolved selves and that honor killings, forced marriages and blood feuds are reflections of an ‘islamic’ culture, which through the presence of Muslims in Europe, poses a threat to our identity and values. Such pernicious assumptions are then reflected in people’s attitudes and behavior towards Muslims. One recent study showed 58 percent of Germans in favour of restricting religious freedom for Muslims. According to recent findings by Faith matters, Muslim women face increasing harassment by EDL sympathisers.
The topic of Islam has had a uniquely harmonising effect on Left and Right, uniting unlikely pundits in a shared concern that Islam – assumed to be a hegemonic influence on people’s behaviour- is responsible for virtually all social ills from sex trafficking to benefit fraud. Perceived ethnic uniformity is taken to mirror a uniformity of belief and outlooks, despite the fact, all religions have plural expressions, with as many implications for freedom of expression, women, democracy or the use of violence for political ends.
The concern is that the racist essentializing of “Muslimhood” is ignored on the grounds that the term ‘islamophobia’ isn’t clear enough. I would wager the term is crystal clear for those on the receiving end – such as when Muslim columnist Mehdi Hasan was described by one blogger as a “moderate cockroach” whose Islamic faith was “no different from the Islam of Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anjem Choudary”. Or when the American writer Laila Lalami ‘s husband was asked by an immigration officer “So, how many camels did you have to trade for her?”
Islamophobia is only unclear to those who see to obfuscate its meaning. It is the tendency to reify Islam - that is to assume the behavior of given individuals (typically extremists) reflects an accurate concretisation of the theoretical underpinnings of the faith itself, and it is the tendency to view its practitioners, Muslims, as a monolithic block, whose every behavior is a consequence of that essentialised identity.
The struggle against Islamophobia is in fact the struggle for more accurate and less lazy explanations of phenomena, getting to the root of the issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on a theoretical body of ideas. There is no more one ‘Islam’ to blame for people’s behaviour, than there is one ‘Christianity’. That might seem like a truism, but whilst it would be comical to speak of the US nuclear arsenal as the ‘Judaeo-Christian bomb’, it has become all too common to speak of the weapons of, say, Pakistan, Iran or Libya as the ‘Islamic bomb’. Rather than investigating and investing in countering rape culture, we claim the muslimness of particular rapists is to blame, absolving popular culture from blame when the men themselves refer to the young women using the sadly popular playground put down “slags”. We regularly see ‘Islam’ used as a catch-all phrase to explain complex phenomena, distracting us from the real issues at hand.
Islamophobia is rejecting the ease with which dejecting and insipid stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are accepted as normal, such as the recent claim, popularised by the Daily Mirror, that Zain Malik of boyband One Direction, was “pimping Islam” on young girls through “boyband jihad”. Or the use of imagery to fan the flames of fear, as the Sun on Sunday, did by superimposing the image of a woman in a burka against a caustic article entitled “Foreign-born population in the UK” of which ironically India, a Hindu majority country topped the list. Or the ease with which columnist and writers can refer to Muslim women as “shroud-swishing zombies” or “silly little misguided Muslim girls” (Julie Burchill; The Sun June 24th, 2009) dressed like “a Dalek in a full veil’ (John Gaunt;The Sun June 20th, 2008) or Dame Ann Leslie’s reference to Muslim women as ‘dressed in bin bags’ on last Sunday Morning Live.
Raising awareness of islamophobia is also about recognising the danger this discourse poses in legitimising the Far-right, a growing trend across Europe where the National Front recently won two seats in the French parliament. In light of the Breivik massacre, it is acknowledging that far from being a lone sociopath, his actions were grounded, according to his manifesto, in an all too common view of Islam and Muslims as a fifth column within Europe and a threat to Western values. In fact, a report by the Cardiff school of journalism found that from 2008, stories in the media on Islam’s alleged incompatibility with dominant British values outnumbered those relating to Islam and terrorism. A consequence of this ‘theoretical’ islamophobia, the intellectual jousting over the place of Islam in Europe, is that Muslims in Europe are facing increasingly tough conditions.
According to a report from Amnesty International, “European Muslims are regularly denied employment and educational opportunities because of widespread cultural and religious stereotypes that lead to discrimination against them.” Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief warns of the “existing notions of a collective mentality that is stereotypically, and often negatively, ascribed to all followers of various religions or beliefs. In extreme cases, such ascription of a collective mentality may amount to ‘de-personalised’ perceptions of human beings, possibly with devastating dehumanizing repercussions.”
Just as minarets or headscarves or face veils or beards have become visible markers of Islam and have become imbued with a significance beyond that attributed to them by Muslims themselves, discrimination against those bearing religious symbols becomes justified through the fallacious reasoning that people have chosen to subscribe to those ideas, in a way people don’t choose their ethnicity. The truth is we don’t choose the significance people attribute to our symbols – especially when we have so little access to defining them ourselves. We have no choice in the stereotypes and assumptions people make on the basis of our skin colour, nor do we have choice in those concerning the symbols which people interpret naively or willingly according to the dominant narrative of extremism and cultural incompatibility.
John Mullen of France’s radical left-wing Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has argued that “opposition to religious practices on the basis of progressive values can easily turn into a thinly disguised form of racism.” It is time the Left take a stronger and clearer stance against islamophobia and stop giving the Right free rein to dictate the terms of European interaction with Muslims based on misplaced and ill-informed assumptions about religion in general and Islam in particular.
The struggle against islamophobia is the struggle for a nuanced and contextualised appraisal of events involving Muslims, a refusal to accept that everything can be explained away through a facile reference to ‘Islam’ and a defence of a European minority group. There is nothing Orwellian about that.